"American Idol" fans who cringed when contestant Jon Peter Lewis appeared in a banana suit as part of a promotional segment for Ford during a recent episode can take comfort in knowing they are not alone.
"I'll be honest with you, on a personal basis, I hate the damn things," Ken Warwick, co-executive producer of the show, admitted. "I come from a whole television system in England that absolutely forbids any interference within the program by any sponsor, by any advertising, or any product placement whatsoever. It's just completely forbidden. So in truth, yes, I find a lot of them painful.
"The problem is," he added, "We've got no say in the commercials."
FOX, which broadcasts "American Idol," requires the producers to include the promotional segments in the Wednesday elimination episodes.
Why does one of the top-rated shows on TV need to earn extra dollars with segments despised by the producers? The network had no direct answer. "Ford is a major sponsor and they have been from the inception of the show and we're proud to have them associated with 'American Idol,' " Scott Grogin, FOX's vice president of corporate communications, said Friday.
Grogin refused to reveal the show's other "major" sponsors or what other promotional segments to expect this season, but Coca-Cola has also been the subject of the spots in past seasons.
Warwick's team works with the companies to produce the segments, but the singing competition is the producers' priority, so limitations are put on the commercials.
"We have no time to do them justice," Warwick said. "We don't have a huge budget that a properly produced commercial will have. We don't have the run-up time and we don't have the facilities all of the time to do it properly. So they're always going to be a little bit cheesy. There's nothing we can do about that."
The contestants are not paid for the commercials, which second-season winner Ruben Studdard has complained about in the past. The laid-back crooner has also said he was embarrassed by some of the segments.
For the most part, however, this season's idols have a different attitude.
"The Ford commercial was real cool," Leah LaBelle, the first of the 12 finalists to be voted off, said Friday. "We thought it was fun to be cheesy so we played along with it."
"You gotta do what you gotta do, it's not that bad," Diana DeGarmo said recently. "Hey, it puts your face out there in front of people."
In fact, some of the singers are looking forward to shooting the segments.
"I want to do a cheesy commercial," George Huff said.
"Me too," added La Toya London. "Put me in one with mozzarella, cheddar, all kinds of cheese!"
Matt Rogers, who smeared ink on his face and flashed his enormous smile in the recent Ford spot, said he has his limits.
"I don't wanna be wearing a pink dress or anything, but you gotta go with the sponsors," he said. "This is what I signed up for."
The only contestant who spoke out against the spots was Jon Peter Lewis.
"I'm not a big fan of cheese. I know, me of all people, the white-shirt-and-tie guy," Lewis said. "The cheese bothers me, but hopefully I don't make it cheesy."